Sports field side view
Practice Field at Omaha North High School

Soccer coach Steve Dosskey had added free time in his life when the Coronavirus pandemic first hit the United States in the spring of 2020. With the additional time Dosskey decided to finally dive into a project he had been thinking about for years. He looked to see if there was a correlation between the number of students on free and reduced lunch and the school’s success on the sports field.

“We have a performance gap in high school sports,” Dosskey said, and he said he has the data to back up his claim.

To find the poverty rate for a school, you take the number of students on free and reduced lunch and divide it by the total student population of the school.

Schools in the bottom half of student poverty level account for 74.1% of state championship appearances and 81.6% of state championships over the last 20 years.

High School Disperancy 2 300x167 - Closing the Gap: Hidden Challenges in High School Sports
Schools in the top half of low poverty rates dominate the amount of State Qualifiers and Championships.

When digging through data and trends, there always tends to be outliers. One of the outliers in this data set is Omaha South soccer. In the last 20 years, they’ve won four state championships, received one state runner-up and have 12 state tournament appearances.

Joe Maass has coached the Packers since 2000, and he took over the team after a winless season before he was hired. Maass offered analysis on the culture his team has built and why they compete at a high level that goes against the data found in the study by Dosskey.

“I am from the community, so I knew what I was walking into when I accepted the job,” Maass said. “It took some time but year after year we kept increasing the number of wins we were seeing.”

He also gives a ton of credit to the support and culture that the South Omaha community gives to the soccer program.

“Parents are invested in their kids and the community rallies behind the team,” said Maass.

Additionally, Maass mentioned how helpful the Kroc Center is to youth sports in the South Omaha community. It gives children access to high-level sports facilities and an opportunity to play. They host many OPS middle school sport activities for soccer and football.

“You can see kids playing at the Kroc with many of them having older siblings that play for South,” said Maas. “It has been a great tool for us to use.”

Golf has one of the highest overhead costs of any sport, putting schools with lower athletic budgets at a disadvantage. Joe Wiegand is the Golf Pro at Benson Golf Course and the Omaha North head golf coach. He has been a golf pro for more than 20 years. Along with the costs associated with Golf, another problem is lack of exposure.

“Exposure to golf needs to start before high school,” Wiegand said. “It is hard to develop a player in only four years, especially if they come in with little to no experience.”

Omaha North often has players who start with no golf experience. Wiegand said development is a big part of North’s program.

“My goal as a coach with my background is to grow the game and create golfers for life while other coaches focus only on fielding the best team they can,” Wiegand said.

Alongside the lack of develop, there is another factor that is a detriment to OPS schools: the cost of equipment. The average price of golf clubs is around $360 dollars, a price that many schools cannot afford to supply to every golfer. This often puts the cost of equipment on the student and their family.

“Golf is not a revenue generating sport for schools, so they want to keep costs as low as possible,” Wiegand said.

PGA Reach Nebraska and the The Sherwood Foundation have donated sets of clubs, push carts and provided lessons for every lady golfer at an OPS school. Additionally, the City of Omaha Parks and Recreation waives the green fees for OPS schools that practice at city courses.

Certain states have changed guidelines to allow schools that have higher levels of poverty to drop down in sports classes in an attempt to have more competitive balance. In terms of golf, Wiegand believes playing up or down shouldn’t be looked down upon.

“We were going to Class B tournaments because we could compete a little better,” said Wiegand. “Established teams are looking to win championships while many OPS schools are just looking to field a team.”

In terms of soccer and other team sports, Maass doesn’t know if moving down classes is the answer. He brought up when Omaha Benson moved down to Class B from Class A in football for two seasons. In those two seasons, they won a total of two games.

“If I was given the opportunity as an athlete to play Class C and compete, I would be for it,” Maass said. “But for whatever reason it hurts people’s feelings when you are not in Class A anymore.”

Additionally, he thinks the individual participation numbers in a sport should determine what class a school is in instead of the entire population of a school. For example, South could be Class A for soccer but Class B for football due to student participation numbers.

Another element that impacts high school sports is the aspect of school choice in the Omaha Metro area. OPS students have free choice to pick what high school they want to attend. Each of the seven OPS schools has a different academic focus, which leads kids from all over the city to be enrolled in any school of their choice.

While some students may pick their schools for academic opportunity, there are others that make their choice based on athletics.

“A kid should be able to go to any school they want as long as they can get their own transportation if there is not a bus that is provided”, said Maass.

Outside of OPS, Maass mentioned the two Bellevue High Schools, East and West. Bellevue West has dominated in many different sports, winning state championships in both basketball and football in recent years. Meanwhile, Bellevue East is typically toward the bottom of the standings across all sports.

“Everybody is leaving East’s district to go to West,” Maas said. “Even though there are regulations and rules in place, parents know how to work the system to get their kid where they want.”

Wiegand said school choice helps his program out.

“Only one or two of the golfers on my team come from a neighborhood that is included in North’s home attendance districts,” said Wiegand.

If students could not choose their schools, Wiegand believes many OPS golf teams would suffer.

“School choice helps competitive balance for golf,” Wiegand said. “Without, it would hurt especially for North.”

Moving forward, Dosskey wants to look at other states around the Midwest and the rest of the country to see if the trends he found in Nebraska are repeated. He was able to present and talk about his research and findings at Ignite Lincoln earlier this year. Dosskey wants as many people to be exposed to this topic as possible to see if there is a way to balance the playing field in the future and improve parity across the state.

Due to lack of resources, “not everyone has the opportunity to meet their full potential,” he says. Which is why he wants to bring more awareness to this topic.

“Sports are some of the most enriching and formative a young person can be involved with” he said. “Every kid deserves that opportunity the problem is they are not getting it and the data suggests poverty has something to do with it.”

 

Junior Sports Media & Communications Major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln